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Putting Broken Georgia Back Together Again

Saakashvili must navigate political minefields while reviving the economy.

April 04, 2004|Rajan Menon | Rajan Menon is Monroe J. Rathbone professor of international relations at Lehigh University.

NEW YORK — Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili had better savor his party's overwhelming victory in last Sunday's parliamentary elections, because his chances for similar triumphs as he tackles his country's serious and longstanding problems are clouded.

For openers, his government doesn't control much of the territory over which it has nominal jurisdiction -- and hasn't since 1992. Abkhazia, the northwestern segment of Georgia's Black Sea coast, is, in effect, independent. The Abkhaz, a predominantly Muslim Caucasian people that, with Russian help, broke away from Tbilisi more than a decade ago, maintain a special relationship with Moscow and are wedded to outright independence. Saakashvili is determined to regain Abkhazia, as are most Georgians, especially the thousands who were expelled from the region. Clashes between Abkhaz and Georgian forces routinely puncture a tenuous cease-fire overseen by a predominantly Russian-dominated contingent. Peace talks have been fruitless. Abkhazia remains a flashpoint and a symbol of the precariousness of Georgia's political equilibrium.

Another slice of Georgia's Black Sea coast, which includes the port of Batumi, runs through the dissident region of Adzharia, whose indigenous people are predominantly, albeit nominally, Muslim, a legacy of several centuries under the Ottoman Empire. The local strongman, Aslan Abashidze, rules with scant regard for the central government in Tbilisi. He hasn't sought full-fledged independence largely because he already possesses its attributes: a constitution, control of local revenues, a police and militia, and unchecked power.

But Adzharia is a crisis-in-waiting. Earlier this month, Abashidze banned Saakashvili from entering his fiefdom, then relented after the Georgian president imposed an economic blockade. The incident highlighted the fragility of Georgian unity. Bringing Adzharia under Tbilisi's control won't be easy because Abashidze has independent economic resources, an extensive patronage network and connections to Russia, which maintains a military base at Batumi.

A similar situation prevails in South Ossetia. The Georgia government's writ doesn't hold in the region, and Russia exercises considerable leverage there, not least because the Ossetians are a nation divided by state boundaries: Russia's republic of North Ossetia holds open the dream of unification for Georgian Ossetians -- and for Georgians the nightmare of political disintegration.

Saakashvili's most formidable challenge, then, is to reunite Georgia -- or at least prevent its fragmentation.

Another more urgent, but also more doable challenge is to revive Georgia's economy. Despite respectable rates of growth in the last several years and low inflation and little foreign debt, the country's gross national product is still only 40% of its 1989 level. About the same proportion of people live below the poverty line, and pervasive corruption and persistent doubts about Georgia's ability to remain whole have made foreign investors leery.

But two pipelines -- one carrying oil from the Azerbaijani port of Baku to Turkey's Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, the other transporting natural gas between Baku and the Turkish city of Erzurum -- are under construction, and their transit revenues will be a significant and steady source of income, or so Georgia hopes. But political chaos could undo both economic ventures, and not only because of Abkhazia, Adzharia and South Ossetia.

The durability of the Saakashvili's political alliance with Zurab Zhvania, the prime minister, and Nino Burjanadze, the parliamentary speaker, is uncertain. There are no strong personal or political bonds uniting the three. In the weeks before the elections, members of Zhvania and Burjanadze's Democrats, which united with Saakashvili's National Movement for the parliamentary vote, were unhappy that the president's party insisted on getting most of the spots on the party list. While Saakashvili remains immensely popular, murmurs about an imperial presidency, his dislike of press criticism and the inexperience of his top lieutenants have surfaced.

The bigger question concerns the political opposition. Eleven parties, most of them tiny and chaotic, contested Sunday's elections. To qualify for representation in parliament, a party had to win at least 7% of the overall votes. Some opposition parties complained that the high threshold would freeze them out; three, including the Citizen's Union, the party of former President Eduard A. Shevardnadze, boycotted the vote; and since the elections, complaints have arisen about irregularities that put the opposition parties at a disadvantage. The problem is that parties left outside the political system may choose to disrupt it.

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